Why Portland Police Stand By Passively When Leftists Riot

Portland police riots antifa alt-right
PORTLAND, OR - AUGUST 17: Counter-protesters wear black clothes during an Antifa gathering during an alt-right rally on August 17, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. Anti-fascism demonstrators gathered to counter-protest a rally held by far-right, extremist groups. Stephanie Keith/Getty

"This is the Portland Police Bureau. Stop throwing things at officers," blasted the command from the Portland, Oregon, police bureau's "LRAD" sound system in downtown Portland earlier this month. "If it continues, this event will be declared a civil disturbance."

In response, the crowd of several hundred left-wing protesters—many of them masked—laughed and chanted, "ACAB! All cops are bastards!" A group of them continued to hurl projectiles like rocks, concrete and food at police. Some vehicles driving by had incendiary devices thrown at them. A nearby war memorial was vandalized with antifa symbols and messages urging people to "kill cops." Videographers at the scene were attacked and chased away for filming.

Police made only three arrests.

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The protest by antifa in Portland on Feb. 8, organized to counter alleged Ku Klux Klan members who never showed up, received little media attention. And why should it? In a city where riots have become a banality, citizens and the local media have understandably become numb. But outsiders, particularly conservatives, responded in disbelief and anger online that a police department in a major American city seemingly permits left-wing political violence to become routine.

So what is the matter with Portland police? Videos recorded in the city since 2016 have highlighted instances of chaos where marauders appear to take over the streets, stop traffic, assault people and damage property with impunity. Frequently, police officers are recorded standing back and watching the criminal acts from a safe distance.

Much of the reaction from the right, all the way up to President Donald Trump, has been directed at Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also doubles as the police commissioner. On numerous occasions, the mayor has publicly politicized the police department, and at times appeared to legitimize far-left protesters. In summer 2018, Wheeler allegedly prohibited Portland police from responding to a siege of the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office by hundreds of protesters. The facility was shut down for a week. The union representing ICE employees sent formal letters to both the U.S. and Oregon attorney generals asking them to conduct a criminal investigation into Wheeler's conduct. In response, the mayor defended the city's inaction, saying it was necessary to protect the free speech of protesters who opposed the administration's border security policies.

While Wheeler has borne the brunt of public criticism about Portland police's "laissez-faire" approach to crowd control, interviews with those at the PPB reveal that Portland's problems with violent protests stem not from the inadequate leadership of any one person, but systemic and pervasive factors affecting police, government and the city itself.

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One viral video recorded by a local YouTuber at the protest earlier this month fueled the perception that police are given "stand down" orders. After being chased by a group of black-clad protesters, the cameraman runs up the steps of the Multnomah County Justice Center, where a police officer tells him: "We're not going to come out and save you."

Both police and the mayor have denied that there is any order for officers to "stand down" at protests. Instead, the PPB clarifies that they won't "provide private security for individuals or groups." It appears that they will intervene only if they witness imminent, serious bodily injury. This has all but provided a blueprint for extremists to know how to avoid being arrested in the presence of police. In the past year, they have been observed using easily concealable weapons that can be quickly deployed, like pepper spray and collapsible batons, rather than bats, shields and large sticks.

But even small batons can be potentially deadly. In June 2019, Gage Halupowski was one of the rioters who rushed in to beat Adam Kelly as he attempted to help a man who was being kicked and punched in a riot. According to the probable cause affidavit, police observed Halupowski delivering a "full overhead swing that struck the top of Kelly's head from behind." Kelly suffered a concussion and required 25 staples to close the wounds to his head. Halupowski, a masked 24-year-old antifa militant, was the only person arrested and convicted for that attack outside Portland's Pioneer Courthouse.

A Portland police officer who spoke with Newsweek on condition of anonymity, who has been on the force for over a decade and has worked on the Rapid Response Team of many violent protests, said the public should not blame individual officers who may appear passive on video. At protests, he says, police are organized into squads and they are permitted to act only with permission from the incident command center, a room normally set up in the central police precinct where the incident commander and others provide critical step-by-step instructions on how to respond at protests. He says that all decisions to act—or not act—come from above, often leading to real-time delays during critical moments of violence.

"Breaking away to respond to a single incident," the officer says, "can put the squad and public at risk." But he says the PPB also simply doesn't have the resources to adequately control large protests. Danielle Outlaw, Portland's police chief until recently, admitted as much in a podcast interview last August.

"I've been asked, 'Well, why isn't that you can't handle these events like New York does or how Boston or Chicago would do,'" she said. "The obvious answer is, we don't have the thousands of officers that those agencies do."

The PPB has been suffering critical staffing shortages for the past few years—something the president of the Portland Police Association blames on the city and its elected government.

"The reason the Police Bureau is experiencing catastrophic staffing shortages, drastically declining recruiting success, and the inability to retain officers is due to one core issue: the intense anti-police sentiment in our city that City Council seems to share," Daryl Turner said in an April 2019 statement.

This is not the only time Turner has sparred with the city government. After a riot in June 2019, in which this reporter was one of several injured, Turner released a statement saying: "It's time for our Mayor to do two things: tell both ANTIFA and Proud Boys that our City will not accept violence in our City, and remove the handcuffs from our officers and let them stop the violence through strong and swift enforcement action. Enough is enough."

Turner did not respond to Newsweek requests for comment about PPB policies.

After the height of protests in Portland in 2018, the PPB have undertaken a noticeably more passive policing framework for protests, despite the mayor telling reporters last summer after a riot, that the city may reconsider its lax enforcement of non-permitted protests. That reconsideration does not seem to have happened, based on the policies currently outlined in the city's directive on crowd control. The directive places emphasis on "de-escalation" and "self-monitoring" as a means of managing potentially violent protests.

"[PPB members] will strive to maintain a diplomatic presence to dissuade participants from engaging in civil disturbance and to encourage crowd self-monitoring," the directive states. "The preferred police response is one of crowd management rather than crowd control." In fact, passive policing at violent demonstrations has become a point of pride for the PPB. At the first public panel on demonstrations last year, key decision-makers in the PPB said they instruct officers to leave the area of a demonstration if their presence is considered an "agitation" to protesters.

"If we identify that we might be the problem, that we might be the agitation there, we will remove ourselves physically from [the protest] to try to de-escalate," Captain Craig Dobson said. Wendi Steinbronn, who was the incident commander for various protests throughout 2018–19, nodded eagerly in agreement.

A spokesperson for the mayor's office emailed Newsweek a statement saying that Wheeler's instructions to the PPB have always been to maintain "public safety, upholding/protecting first amendment rights, protecting property, and keeping the city moving." However, Wheeler refused to support the police chief's proposals last July when she asked the city to enhance charges against mask-wearers who commit crimes, as well as giving police the directive to videotape demonstrations.

Seventy-five year-old Kent Houser, a lifelong Portland resident, has been one of the most vocal critics of the mayor. In October 2018, Houser was driving a silver sedan that was mobbed and attacked by left-wing protesters in downtown Portland. Police did not intervene. Video of the incident, which showed people using batons to smash his vehicle, was shown on Fox News and conservative media.

"The mayor's office can make all the statements for public consumption," Houser told Newsweek. "This does not correlate in any way with the sad facts of the 'stand down' situation which existed at that time, and hopefully, no longer will be tolerated." Shaun Clancy, 37, was arrested and charged with felony first-degree criminal mischief for his alleged role in the incident last November, more than a year after the attack occurred. Police found weapons in his possession, including a stun gun with an antifa sticker. He faces trial at the end of March.

Even as Portland's population has grown dramatically in the last decade, police numbers have been stagnant or in decline at around 900 full-time sworn officers on the force. Efforts at lowering recruitment standards—such as dropping the two-year college degree requirement and allowing beards and tattoos—haven't yielded enough recruits. This February, the PPB disbanded two street-crimes policing units due to staffing shortages. Forty-seven officers retired last year, around five percent of the force, and another round of retirements is set to take place in August.

To address resource shortages in the past, the PPB has relied on help from other police departments, both state and local, to provide additional officers. But many of those long-standing mutual aid partnerships have ended in acrimony. Last year, Pat Garrett, the sheriff in neighboring Washington County, ordered deputies not to assist law enforcement in Portland unless it was directly connected to a case in their county. This followed a costly civil lawsuit and judgement against two Washington County tactical officers who injured a north Portland man while assisting Portland police on a search warrant. Later in the year, neighboring Clackamas County also issued a directive that deputies would no longer respond to calls in Portland.

"I will not place you at unnecessary personal and professional risk," Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts said in an email to deputies at the time.

The PPB officer tells Newsweek the city's strong anti-police sentiment has led to a chilling work environment where officers are unwilling to use force when needed out of fear that they will have their reputations and career destroyed.

"[Police] are concerned with how this plays on TV and how it will look to the public," the PPB officer says. "We have to consider how media will respond, and lawsuits people file against us for using force. A Portland jury is not sympathetic to police."

Four protesters injured at an antifa protest in 2018 are suing the PPB and city for injuries allegedly resulting from officers' "excessive force." One of them, represented by the ACLU of Oregon, is seeking $250,000 in damages.

Allegations of misconduct can halt an officer's career progress for years, even if the officer is ultimately exonerated. Case in point: PPB Lieutenant Jeff Niiya, the bureau's former crowd control liaison. For most of 2019, he was placed under an outside agency's investigation and review after local media alleged that text exchanges between him and right-wing protesters showed a "chummy" relationship. The headlines sent shockwaves throughout the city, and city commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty accused Portland police of "collusion with right-wing extremists" to the national press. Niiya was removed from his role as crowd control liaison and assigned to desk duty in another division within the department. Investigators ultimately ruled all allegations of unprofessionalism and misconduct unfounded.

Michael Strickland, a 39-year-old conservative videographer—he was convicted in 2017 for brandishing a legal handgun in downtown Portland at left-wing protesters who were pursuing him—says passive policing will lead to more violence.

"Eventually the PPB's 'run-and-hide' policy will get someone killed," Strickland says. "At some point antifa is going to pick the wrong fight, and the person they are attacking will not demonstrate the level of discipline and restraint that I showed." Strickland was found guilty by a judge on 10 counts of unlawful use of a weapon, 10 counts of menacing and one count of second-degree disorderly conduct. His conviction is currently being considered by the Oregon Court of Appeals.

This month, former PPB police chief Outlaw began her role as the police commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department. Jami Resch, the former assistant chief of the investigations branch, was sworn in as the new police chief of the PPB. Judging by the police actions at the Portland protest on Feb. 8, the status quo of passive policing will hold.

Says the PPB officer, "Politics in the city is what leads to action or inaction."

Why Portland Police Stand By Passively When Leftists Riot | News